Desire, oooh like fire…come on, baby, light my fire
I used to lip sync for my life with these lyrics when I was a boy. I had no idea what En Vogue was referring to when they sang “Desire,” but that never stopped me from getting into the song. You could say the En Vogue record was my introduction to the concept of desire. I felt desire for the first time years later as a teenager. My uncle kept a stack of Men’s Health magazines in his guest bathroom and the white model on one of the covers grabbed my attention. I have no idea who the model was, but I desired him. My beliefs on desirability began manifesting here and whiteness was the prototype.
When I think about my first experiences with desirability, I knew that I could not disclose my desires to anyone. My parents, emblematic of their generation, were invested in patriarchal beliefs of masculinity. My gender performance and sexuality were heavily policed. For example, my closest friend as a kid was a white boy who lived within walking distance to my house. One day, he and I walked to school together holding hands under his mother’s supervision. I was 6 and he was 5 at the time. My father happened to drive by. When he saw my friend and me, he got out of his car and told me holding hands was something “boys do not do.”
My father’s message on same sex intimacy was clear: Anything beyond a friendship with a male was not approved. Any activity with another male that could be interpreted as such (i.e. holding hands) was not approved. I carried this message, along with the policing of my gender performance and sexuality, when I first felt desire in my uncle’s bathroom. As a result, shame developed around my desires. I kept my attraction to males secret. I was left to navigate desirability on my own. Whiteness schooled me on what was desirable, which would expose itself later in my life.
I was now 22 years old, out of the closet, and had never been in a relationship. My vulnerability was at its highest. I longed for companionship with another gay man. I wanted to end my loneliness since I endured it for so long. Therefore, I started putting tremendous pressure on myself to attract men. I browsed the social media profiles of the men that I desired (i.e. tall, able-bodied, slim, light-skinned) and the men that they desired. It seemed they did not look anything like me. The comparisons began. I believed that I needed to be more masculine, slimmer, fitter, and lighter. Whiteness was the “standard” by which I was judging myself.
Although the DMs were adding up in my inbox, I did not see beauty in myself. No matter how many men told me I was handsome, I could not see it. Whiteness became the lens through which I viewed myself. It was every bit of what James Baldwin calls a “merciless judgment of oneself” in The Fire Next Time. He also writes “Negroes in this country are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world.” Whiteness taught me that Eurocentric beauty standards were the ideal. In my mind, I was not any of those things. Hatred of myself was now born.
Self-loathing led me to filter every picture that I posted on Instagram. I would wear a fitted hat and frown in my selfies to appear more masculine. I would increase the brightness, modify the contrast and edit whatever else I could to lighten my complexion. I eventually stopped posting on social media altogether. When a guy expressed interest in me, I would ignore or somehow sabotage it. Deep down, I did not believe that I was worthy of anybody’s interest. My extremely low self-esteem would take me to dark places where I felt tormented. The self-loathing mutated into isolation and ultimately depression.
My desires were rooted in anti-Blackness, which gave me deep shame and illustrated there was much I needed to explore within. Every man that I dated was slim, able-bodied, and light-skinned. This was not a coincidence, which I needed to own. Hari Ziyad writes, “[White supremacy] requires that we believe the way things are now are natural and unchangeable, when they have been affected by centuries of violent social programming. We know white supremacist beauty standards exist, that anti-Black ideas about Black people of all (non)genders exist, but supposedly we can’t help whom we love, even though white supremacy has already been helping for ages.” As I learned more about oppression, I grasped the concept that sex is political. Once I reached this understanding, I felt that I could finally address my pain.
I learned to hate myself through desirability politics and internalized racism. If you would have asked me what I am attracted to, I would have denied having any desire influenced by whiteness. Jeff Baker writes, “The taboo surrounding our intracommunity desirability politics—from denial about the nearly ubiquitous preference for Eurocentric features, to the tacit association of certain skin tones and body sizes with ‘tops’ and ‘bottoms’—is a testament to the fact that deeply conditioned internalized racism, particularly internalized misogynoir, needs to be acknowledged and addressed candidly.” I pride myself on being invested in social justice, but the fact is I allowed desirability politics to dictate who I was attracted to, which upheld systems of oppression. I realized that I would never be free until I confronted the politics embedded within my desires.
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I opened up about my shame in therapy. I educated myself on desirability politics. I read every article that I could lay my eyes on. Then, I would privately unpack it all, through tears and anger. The tears represented the deep pain that I caused myself for years. I became rightfully livid at whiteness. It blew my mind that my self-loathing was what whiteness wanted. Whiteness wanted me to hate myself, to hate my Blackness, to marginalize my own people…and I fell for it. The white supremacist systems that target us are real. They are deceptive and carefully ingrained within every fabric of our society. None of us are exempt. It is essential to be acute in recognizing these systems, which means lovingly calling each other out, including ourselves.
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I do not have all of the answers on how to eliminate internalized racism. In fact, I am still healing from the painful beliefs and agonizing hatred that I carried for years. There is more work and unpacking to be done, which I am committed to. Caleb Luna best explains what I strive to do daily, “It remains important to me to interrogate desire– not to then become attracted to everyone, but to be aware of what powers are informing my desire and what I am upholding with my desire.” Some might think that interrogating our desires is not that serious, but we must all reflect on the ways we contribute to our own oppression. Let us never underestimate the power that self-analysis can offer us in dismantling oppressive politics.
[Feature Image: A person standing to the left of the photo. Their face in 3/4. They have a shaved head and a pair of sunglasses on their head. They are wearing a jacket with many colored hearts on it. Source: Sheila Sund]